More Americans are now hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any previous point in the pandemic. The current count—147,062—has doubled since Christmas, and is set to rise even more steeply, all while Omicron takes record numbers of health-care workers off the front lines with breakthrough infections. For hospitals, the math of this surge is simple: Fewer staff and more patients mean worse care. Around the United States, people with all kinds of medical emergencies are now waiting hours, if not days, for help.
Some reporters and pundits have claimed that this picture is overly pessimistic because the hospitalization numbers include people who are simply hospitalized with COVID, rather than for COVID—“incidental” patients who just happen to test positive while being treated for something else. In some places, the proportion of such cases seems high. UC San Francisco recently said a third of its COVID patients “are admitted for other reasons,” while the Jackson Health System in Florida put that proportion at half. In New York State, COVID “was not included as one of the reasons for admission” for 43 percent of the hospitalized people who have tested positive.
But the “with COVID” hospitalization numbers are more complicated than they first seem. Many people on that side of the ledger are still in the hospital because of the coronavirus, which has both caused and exacerbated chronic conditions. And more important, these nuances don’t alter the real, urgent, and enormous crisis unfolding in American hospitals. Whether patients are admitted with or for COVID, they’re still being admitted in record volumes that hospitals are struggling to care for. “The truth is, we’re still in the emergency phase of the pandemic, and everyone who is downplaying that should probably take a tour of a hospital before they do,” Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Massachusetts, told me.